x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Star quality for hotels in Dubai

Dubai is overhauling its hotel-rankings service, looking to provide a standardised grading system for tourists, while also crafting designations that clearly recognise its most illustrious and luxurious properties.

The Dubai Mall and The Address Dubai Mall hotel. Gabriela Maj / Bloomberg
The Dubai Mall and The Address Dubai Mall hotel. Gabriela Maj / Bloomberg

Dubai is known for having some of the glitziest hotels in the world. But now the city is raising the bar higher with a new hotel classification system.

Customers and operators are often left confused by what constitutes a five-star hotel as there is noglobal "unified system" for the hospitality industry.

"In a utopian world you'd have one system that applies throughout the whole world," says John Podaras, a director at the Middle East and North Africa division of Christie + Co, a hotel consultancy.

"That's highly impractical, of course, because different parts of the world have different customs. But the more important difference is economics. Land in the centre of London is a completely different price to Abu Dhabi.

"The issue with these star-based systems is that they can be perceived as being too subjective."

Enforcing high standards for hotels in the UAE has become increasingly important as the industry grows.

Travel and tourism's contribution to the county's economy is expected to increase by 4.2 per cent a year to Dh132.4 billion (US$36.04bn), or 7 per cent of GDP, by 2022, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

So arranging a classification programme is vital. The city's complex new system has been developed by the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). A draft version was launched in May although DTCM has yet to announce a launch date.

Under the revised regulations, there is scope for major five-star hotels to apply for an additional "gold" or "platinum" status if they want to distinguish themselves from other properties.

But it is not just the luxury market that is being targeted. Rather than simply following a one to five-star system, the emirate is adding new categories for budget properties and youth hostels.

"The new classification system is aimed at increasing the emirate's guest accommodation portfolio and encouraging diversity in line with … the expectations of its current and future visitors," DTCM says.

"Many hotels in Dubai already meet a lot of these standards, while some may require to raise theirs to meet the new market demands and expectations."

While a law has yet to be passed to enforce the new regulations, the DTCM revealed that it looked closely at Abu Dhabi's classification system in drawing up the blueprint.

"Governments like to have a standard across the board," says Mr Podaras. "Whereas an operator will have standards that make its brand different from everybody else's.

"Ultimately you need to evolve systems that combine a little bit of both, so on the one hand the consumer will get what they expect to get, but on the other hand the brands will ensure they offer a very specific customer experience."

And they do. Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, like the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, is often described as a "seven-star" property. No such rating actually exists, and the hotel is officially classified as a five-star hotel.

For Emirates Palace, which cost $3bn to build, boasts a private beach, an auditorium, more than 1,000 chandeliers and 1,200 employees,there is more to being a five-star hotel than having a vast array of facilities and expensive fittings.

"We'd like to see more weight given to service," says Bugra Berberoglu, the general manager of Emirates Palace. "You could have the most stunning hotel in the world, but without luxury-standard service, it's just a nice building."

To this end, the lavish hotel has a team of butlers on hand to attend to all of its guests.

"Hotel classifications systems are a good foundation for consumers to differentiate between the level of services and facilities that hotels offer," says Mr Berberoglu.

"However, the lack of a unified global system means that there are wide variations from one destination to another," Mr Berberoglu adds. "We find that accolades from our customers expressed through hotel reviews are better indicators for what the level of quality and service that a guest can expect."

Abu Dhabi's tourism authority launched the capital's first official hotel ranking system in 2009, which includes a wide array of criteria, ranging from service standards to the facilities and the quality of the furniture to the power of the hairdryers.

Under Dubai's blueprint, some hotels could be downgraded, the DTCM warns in the draft guidelines that have been published on its website. The department's current classification system is more than a decade old, and the new one has been in the works for the past few years.

To achieve a five-star rating, hotels must offer a wide-range of services, including a packing and unpacking service free of charge, while bathrobes will need to be made of a material that is a minimum of 90 per cent natural fibre, such as cotton or linen.

But to achieve an illustrious platinum accolade, hotels will have to provide added extras such as full-size bottles in terms of bath and shower products.

The evening "turn down service" also has to include a gift, such as a fan, nail file or cultural item, according to DTCM's requirements.

Analysts point out that hotels already have exceptionally high standards.

"Dubai's standards of luxury far exceed those in many parts of the world," says Gaurav Sinha, the managing director of Insignia, a branding consultancy based in Dubai that specialises in luxury and travel.

"This new classification system would remove ambiguity and raise the bar for the rest of the world. [It] will enhance transparency and trust amongst the travel trade as well as assure visiting guests of certain standards."

Over the years, the concept of luxury has changed. "What was considered five-star even in the past decade is not relevant anymore," says Mr Sinha.

Yet some hotel operators believe the introduction of a new system in Dubai could be a source of confusion.

"Such systems are overly complex and difficult to understand, these systems are also disadvantageous to some hotels whose quality of accommodation could fall into one class but the lack of a specific facility would prevent it from reaching a higher classification," says Masood Hashim, the chief executive of Global Hotels Management, which manages the Clover Creek Hotel Apartments, a four-star deluxe property in Deira.

"Therefore, it does pose serious challenges for hotels," he adds.